It's fair to say that no one was prepared for a global coronavirus pandemic and, in particular, the entire infrastructure of professional cycling was thrown into chaos by the mass cancellation of events. The road scene, normally brimming with top events in April, has fallen utterly silent.
That changed for one far-too-short hour on Sunday, when Flanders Classics managed to pull off a mad-scramble, last-minute effort to hold a 'virtual' Tour of Flanders.
Cyclingnews spoke with Flanders Classic CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel about what went into the event, its successes and potential improvements and how top cycling can integrate into the eSports world in the future.
Cyclingnews: I really enjoyed the virtual Tour of Flanders. I have to say I think that everybody's just dying for any kind of bike race.
Van Den Spiegel: Yeah, there's nothing right now, there's no live sports in general, so the response overall was crazy - way over what we expected and also the reactions were super positive. In a time where there's nothing else, it was a good idea to try to set this up. As soon as we came up with the idea, the riders and the teams and everybody were very into it and very enthusiastic because of course as we all know cycling is struggling and everybody was dying to show their sponsors and to ride.
The riders were happy that they could at least have some type of goal and just break the rhythm of daily training without knowing what they're training for. It was fun. It was a good project and it was a tough production because it wasn't as easy as it seemed to put everything together. Ok, we could still improve a lot of things but we were happy with the result and the response.
CN: When did you start working on the Virtual Ronde project?
VDS: This exact project, just 10 days before the race. But of course we had been thinking about doing this type of stuff for a few months already - but then it was more like a gimmick and not a real race. We had some ideas about it and then this just sped everything up.
We put everything together in 10 days, which was quite a challenge because of the lockdown. It's not like we could send technicians to the riders' homes. So they had to do everything themselves. We have to brief them. We had to be in touch with the teams about the use of image rights and the jerseys and so it was quite a challenging production.
On the technical side, putting together the live images from their homes with the virtual race - it was a stressful week last week but in the end everything went just fine.
CN: What kind of logistics did you have to try to put all of those feeds together and what kind of technical difficulties were behind that?
VDS: Of course, the riders needed two screens because they needed to film themselves and then they need an extra screen to see themselves race. They didn't see the TV feed, they only saw the virtual race, but then you have to bring everything into one platform.
We had 16 feeds at the same time and we had to pull them in. We did that through a cloud system which is called CloudCast. Then at the same time we had the national broadcaster here in Belgium (Sporza) co-producing because we also wanted to have a director on the virtual race.
The spectator views that we had initially weren't sufficient to have a good TV program, so we asked BKOOL to adjust spectator mode so we could have a director picking the right images, depending on how the race was going. That was a challenge at first, but then they made some adjustments and we were able to do that.
So we had 20-30 people for the last week just day and night trying to put this together. We had a full test on Wednesday and that's when we decided to do it because we weren't sure before that.
CN: Can you describe how the director managed the feed?
VDS: Just like in a real race, you need that just to make sure that you're on the right spot in the race depending on how the race goes. We also added some spectator views because those in most platforms are quite limited so we added some spectator views just to make the TV program better.
CN: Like the overhead shots?
VDS: Yeah, and the one where you went to the side of the rider - so you went on top and then it came down and it went to the side and it took the profile of the rider. That was a new one. And then the front view was new. I think now they're up to five spectator modes and initially we only had three, which made it much better.
CN: So what about the course? Was that something that BKOOL had already programmed?
VDS: This is something that we agreed on with BKOOL before the European winter because we wanted to offer our cycling fans something to do during the winter. So we already had all of our courses for all of our six spring Classics in BKOOL. So even before we announced this, there was like over 30,000 people that had already tried one of our courses. If we hadn't have done that then it would have been impossible, so this was the advantage that we already had it in there.
Of course, the graphics weren't the exact Flemish landscapes, but the course was exact. So we thought that the narrative of the whole thing needed the Ronde van Vlaanderen course to make it to make it a good marketable product.
CN: I noticed that some of the landscapes hadn't been rendered...
VDS: Honestly, we just lacked time. If we had three months to prepare this, we we could have completely rebuilt the whole Flemish Ardennes. But at the same time we have to pick our battles and, in the end, the battle between the riders was more important than the graphics, and making sure that we were able to show the race in the right way turned out to be more important than than the graphics. But of course we know this is stuff that we could improve.
CN: For the riders, did you standardize the equipment or have them weigh in to make it fair?
VDS: All of them of course ride on top notch rollers (stationary trainers). So we of course know they're certified but we and the riders are aware that there might be a slight difference between some of the trainers. What we did check and double-check was the weights of the riders, and we were taking care of all the settings of the of the race.
So we did as much as we could just to make sure it was a fair race. Of course, this is not an official race and in the future we should find a way to certify trainers just to make sure that they give the exact power output. But this was the best that we could do and all of them were on the top notch Elite or Saris or Tacx or Wahoo trainer, so we had to trust those in this case.
CN: Did you have any teams turn you down?
VDS: We had a maximum of 12 riders just for logistics. Everyone I talked to was enthusiastic and we filled it up right away. All the teams immediately embraced it and offered riders. For example, what happened with Nicolas Roche I thought was great. He's not a rider for the Classics, he just said I'd like to do it - he told his team - and then he came third.
CN: So are you planning to do any more?
VDS: We had a quite a good evaluation, and of course the production was tough. So we're looking into how we can improve that part.
I know there's a lot of interest with other race organizers now to try to copy what we did on Sunday, but I think we set the bar quite high for the first time. If we do one (more), it depends on resources. We invested in this in a difficult period even for us; the teams and the riders rode for free. We didn't make any money on this. The national broadcaster just stepped in and spent resources. So this was quite an investment.
We just wanted to do something for cycling in general and put cycling on the map in a difficult period. If we do another one - and for that we would need all the partners to step in again - then it'll probably be one for the women. I can't put any timing on it yet because we're still in debriefing mode now from Sunday, but if we do a next one, it'll probably be one for the women.
CN: That's great to hear. So you said you're still in the debriefing mode, what types of things are you looking to?
VDS: There were still some bugs in the system. I think the operators and the director still had to get the whole thing in the fingertips a little bit more. We only did one test and then we went live, so I think there's still stuff that we could easily improve.
The success of Sunday was also the fact that the riders just went at it - and that's why everybody enjoyed it so much because nobody wanted to lose and they just wanted to win the race. That's what made it fun and having a field like that, that just goes at it in a period with there's no other racing, I think that's the secret.
If we do any other races, whether it's for women or for men, in the upcoming months or weeks, I think the level of the field should always be very high.
Cycling needs it stars right now and needs to keep attracting the fans and keep them engaged and I think that's also a big part. We're very grateful to the riders and the teams for what they did on Sunday because they made it. Okay, we offered them the circumstances but they made it a success. I could I could feel some interest with women's teams right now already, so it will be nice to do a repeat.
CN: Yeah, we would love to see that. I wonder if you're considering maybe a little bit longer race? It seemed like it went by so fast.
VDS: The thing is that the effort is so crazy that I'm not sure if we have to do it. I don't know if you saw the average power of Van Avermaet. It was like 534 watts normalized - it was crazy. So I'm not sure if we have to make it longer, but because what we saw is we attracted a younger demographic in the ratings and also on our social reports. There was a very young crowd loving this and you know cycling has always been, let's say, I'm not criticising, but the attention span of the younger generation is much shorter. The fact that we got them engaged for something in their eyes that looks like a game but is real high-performance sport - we need to be careful with making this longer.
Also, from a broadcaster point of view, they love these formats that don't exceed an hour and a half, that are just powerful and are short. We could consider making it a little bit longer, but we have to make sure it remains doable for the riders. We can't make it 70-80 kilometres. If we saw now what it took from them just to do this 45-minute effort, you could probably go up in time a little bit but not that much.
[Thomas] De Gendt was telling us it was harder than any race he ever did because you don't have any time to recover. Even if you're drafting it's still tough. You can feel a little difference but it's still tough. So it was just all out and it'll be all out no matter what the distance is. We saw [Alberto] Bettiol took off real fast and he just exploded. I think there are a lot of pros just to keeping it within an hour and just explore a little bit more what we could do better within that time frame.
CN: Esports were already on the horizon - the UCI had already declared the World Championship and started making rules for it. So is this something that you're going to try to look into as far as organizing and producing even after the pandemic is over?
VDS: We've been looked at always as a organizer that's open for any innovation, and I think we showed that again now, so we're open to think about that. I understand that the UCI wants to put rules in place but we look at it from more of a business development perspective and how this product should look to make it attractive for the existing crowd and for new crowds. That's more the way we want to look into it [rather] than to the try to claim championships. UCI has a contract with with Zwift right now and we work with BKOOL, but we'll keep looking into it for sure.
I think we took a head start now and what we did was the combination of live images with the virtual race, but what cycling has over other eSports is the fact that it's a combination of high performance sports with the gaming atmosphere. So this is something that could be a plus for cycling that we are willing to look into.
But it's still all very, very new and I was just happy. I have an eight-year-old and he never watches longer than 15 minutes when cycling races are on and he watched it from the start till the end on Sunday. He was completely over excited - this was the first good sign I thought that we're doing something right for younger people. So we just need to find the right way to bring it in the future.
It was a super stressful for a week for me but on Sunday night I was really relieved and happy and we were getting all the feedback from people that were excited. Even skeptical people said: 'look, I underestimated what it would do to me. I was glued to my screen. It was a crazy race. It was exciting. We were really cheering.'
In these times, we don't even know when society will come back to normal, but cycling, because of the use of public space and the fact that it's so international, might still be out for quite some time. So I think we're able to offer something that comes as close to races as it will get for the coming months. Let's see what we can do next.
Congratulations @GregVanAvermaet! Winner of De Ronde 2020: Lockdown Edition! #DeRonde2020 @LidlBelgium pic.twitter.com/jHGTuAFqy0April 5, 2020